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McCutchen in top form this spring

| Thursday, March 17, 2016, 2:42 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Andrew McCutchen watches his solo homer against the Yankees on Thursday. He batted second in the order, an experiment that is expected to continue the rest of spring training.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen watches his solo homer during the first inning of a spring training game against the Yankees on Thursday, March 17, 2016, at McKechnie Field in Bradenton, Fla.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Andrew McCutchen could not do what he did Thursday — or Wednesday — a year ago.

On March 13 last spring, the Pirates scratched McCutchen with what the club initially described as “lower-body” soreness.

He went on to struggle through one of his worst career months in April. He couldn't pull the ball. He could not pivot around his achy left knee. His whip-like bat slowed. After a loss to the Reds on May 5, McCutchen said he was sick and tired of going “0 for freaking four.” His average had dropped to .185.

This spring, that slow start is a distant memory. A day after McCutchen smashed a ball that soared over left-field seats at Ed Smith Stadium — seemingly with a hang time of two minutes — McCutchen pulled a Masahiro Tanaka fastball into the left-field seats at McKechnie Field.

McCutchen has finished in the top five of NL MVP voting in four straight seasons, but the Pirates are hoping to extract even more value out of their superstar in 2016. Part of the plan might involve a new lineup home. McCutchen hit second against the Yankees Thursday, an experiment that will continue in the second half of the spring.

But most of the plan hinges on better health.

“I've got my power back. Got my legs back,” McCutchen said. “It's just about using them now.”

Last season, the knee eventually quieted, and McCutchen returned to his elite form. But this season, it appears McCutchen will begin the year as his typical self, and that could mean extra wins for the Pirates.

From 2012-14, McCutchen averaged 7.1 wins above replacement per season. Last season, he produced 4.9. Can he rebound?

“I couldn't do what I wanted to do. I couldn't prepare how I wanted to prepare,” McCutchen said of last spring. “I had to compensate for certain things. ... But my body is in good shape, so I'm in good shape. Don't have to worry about it now. ... Knee's fine. I feel good. Feel strong.”

What was the diagnosis he received last year?

“It hurt. That's all I can tell you. Just wasn't normal. It's fine now,” McCutchen said.

Said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle: “The strength in running is great to see. ... The breaks in the outfield have been really clean. ... He feels really good, really strong.”

McCutchen has not hit second in a regular-season game since 2010. He has not started a game in any batting order position other than third since 2011.

Sabermetric research shows the No. 1, No. 4 and No. 2 spots are the most important in the lineup. Not the third spot.

Why?

No place in the order comes to bat more often with no one on and two outs as often as the third spot.

McCutchen (158) finished second in the majors to Paul Goldschmidt (164) in plate appearances with two outs and no one on last season. Among the Pirates, Gregory Polanco was a distant second with 83.

Hurdle told McCutchen about those numbers this spring.

“Yeah, it's pretty eye-opening. I could have guessed I was pretty high,” McCutchen said. “There were a lot of times I went to the plate like, ‘Dang, two outs again?' That's not to knock anybody on the team at all. ... To be hitting how I've hit over the years and still can't get 100 RBIs?”

McCutchen is not sure if the experiment will continue in the regular season.

“From a team standpoint, if it helps, then I'm for it,” McCutchen said. “I don't know if we're going to make it an everyday thing or if that's going to go into the season. I don't know. If it does, then I don't think it should surprise anyone.”

The past two seasons, 24 percent of his plate appearances have come with two outs and no runners on. While it didn't help that Polanco and Josh Harrison were not high on-base performers in front of him, No. 2 hitters, on average, face that situation in 11.4 percent of plate appearances.

Hurdle said he will continue to look at McCutchen at No. 2 but stopped short of saying the move would be permanent.

“Those guys that have done their homework and dug into lineup metrics, and how you stack them, (found) you try to put your best hitters and one, four and two,” Hurdle said. “You start with on-base percentage. ... We are looking at some different lineup configurations. On the upside, it gets him to the plate 20, 30 more times (per season). He hasn't driven in 100 runs in the third spot. Does this alignment help? ... That two spot came up a lot for him this offseason. It makes sense on a lot of different levels.

“The challenge for me is for 47 years the baddest dude in the league hits third. ... I have to kind of re-arrange my thinking on it and what's best for our team. How do we maximize our run production?”

Perhaps with baddest guy in the league hitting second — and with a healthy knee.

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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